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The front of the northern gateway and entrance to the Great Stupa, which was built in the 3rd century BC by Emperor Ashoka.
© Michael Turtle

The Great Stupa at Sanchi

The highlight of the region is the Great Stupa of Sanchi, founded thousands of years ago by Emperor Ashoka and decorated with some of the best Buddhist artwork in the world.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi has been the focal point of the Buddhist faith in the region since it was built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The grand structure still inspires awe today and sits at the top of a hill, surrounded by the remains of smaller stupas, monasteries, and temples that were built as the religious community grew in the centuries after the site was founded.

Despite its impressive scale today, the original Ashokan stupa was about half the size and built from large bricks and mud mortar. It’s believed it had raised terraces at the base, was enclosed by a wooden railing, and was crowned by a stone umbrella. The stupa was enlarged using local sandstone during the Sunga period, which began about 50 years after Ashoka’s death. The elaborately-carved gateways were added later, in the 1st century BC.

The gateways and the stone balustrade were added after the stupa was enlarged following the death of Emperor Ashoka. – © Michael Turtle
The gateways and the stone balustrade were added after the stupa was enlarged following the death of Emperor Ashoka. – © Michael Turtle

The main body of the stupa symbolises the cosmic mountain. It is topped by a ‘harmika’ to hold the triple umbrella, or ‘chhatraveli’, which represents the three jewels of Buddhism – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The high circular terrace against the base is accessible by staircases and is designed for worshippers to be able to walk around the stupa. On the ground level, there is another procession path that is surrounded by stone balustrades.

A view of the rear of the northern gateway from the high terrace that encircles the stupa and is accessible by stairs from the ground level. – © Michael Turtle
A view of the rear of the northern gateway from the high terrace that encircles the stupa and is accessible by stairs from the ground level. – © Michael Turtle

The gateways at the four cardinal points are the highlights of the structure, with a series of detailed carvings showing Buddhist symbols and important historical and religious scenes. Interestingly, Buddha is always shown in these carvings as a symbol and not as a human. He is represented on the gateways as a horse without a rider, an umbrella above an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, or as footprints.

The sculpture of Buddha in dhyana-mudra at the eastern side of the stupa, added to the site in the 5th century AD by the Guptas. – © Michael Turtle
The sculpture of Buddha in dhyana-mudra at the eastern side of the stupa, added to the site in the 5th century AD by the Guptas. – © Michael Turtle

Through each of the gateway entrances is an image of Buddha in human form seated under a pillared canopy. They were added to the site in the 5th century AD, much later than the rest of the stupa’s decorations, as the worship continued here. It’s yet another demonstration of the endurance of devotion that Emperor Ashoka created at Sanchi.

Many World Heritage sites are temporarily closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Please check official websites for more information.

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The Great Stupa at Sanchi

Hours

Open from sunrise to sunset

Pricing

Citizens of India and visitors of SAARC: (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan) and BIMSTEC Countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar) – Rs. 30 per head.

Others: Indian Rs. 500/- per head

Children up to 15 years free